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The case for sailing solo in Sea of Thieves

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This pirate game is meant for friends, but can be enjoyed alone

Sea of Thieves - skeletons with glowing eyes in front of captain’s cabin door on ghostly green ship at night
You may find yourself on this ferry a few times during a solo run.
Rare/Microsoft Studios

Sea of Thieves is a fun but uneven multiplayer game that allows you to roll around with friends as a crew of four (or two, on a smaller ship) pirates. For those among us who prefer to play on their own, or just can’t rustle up a group, don’t worry: Sea of Thieves is a perfectly viable solo experience.

Is it more difficult? Yes. Will you be at a disadvantage against enemy crews out there on the lawless ocean? Also yes. Even with all of that in mind, I’ve had a blast for around 15 hours as a solo swashbuckler.

Sea of Thieves is relatively content-light at launch, and most of your time will be centered around collecting things for three factions. There are no experience bars, and enemies do not drop items ranging in rarity from green to orange that give you +2 to Shanty Song Mastery or extra damage on your cutlass swings. Instead, what you see is what you get. But there’s a surprising amount of room to master those mechanics and feel yourself improve at the art of pirate-craft.

Sea of Thieves - a skull-shaped cloud looms on the horizon as a pirate sails ahead with a spyglass
Solo pirates can find content well within their grasp.
Rare/Microsoft Studios

This is not a game that holds your hand. In fact, the first few hours you spend with Sea of Thieves will likely be frustratingly opaque, unless you turn to guides and do some reading outside of the game. I chose to go in blind, and my first voyage was a short one. I sailed in circles across the ocean, finally making it to Snake Island. Upon landfall, I was murdered by snakes.

I’ve played hours of solo voyages since then, and it’s quiet, and more difficult, but I feel like I’m advancing my mastery of sailing and brawling. In a game where ‘experience’ is less of a character advancement mechanic and more of a literal thing you gain over time, the solo player gets to set their own schedule. Playing with friends comes with the expectation of consideration for their voyages and their progression.

Want to complete a single voyage in a nice, half-hour chunk? Go for it without any pressure from the rest of the team to stay online. Want to while the evening away and push yourself to fill up your hold as much as possible? You can focus on the loot without being pressured to go check out that skull cloud, or join in on a pirate music party. If you choose to play solo, you can still find thrilling action-adventure moments.

Last night, I spent an hour in a prolonged chase with a larger vessel, fighting impossible odds to keep my ship afloat while I single-handedly fought off a larger boarding party.

It helps that progression in Sea of Thieves relies on player choice. You have to actively unlock and pursue more difficult missions, and so you won’t be overwhelmed as you practice. The solo player gets to watch their proficiency grow, and things that were once frustrating fade away. I barely need to head downstairs to keep an eye on the map. I nudge the wheel and sails as necessary, and scan the horizons, keeping an eye out for other ships.

There’s also the pleasing benefit that solo games have no other players assigned to you by matchmaking. It’s just you and your ship: No randos throwing a temper tantrum because they can’t steer the ship, no one in a loud and angry argument with their girlfriend as you load into the game, no players who are ready and all too willing to inform you of how high they are.

Not only is this a huge relief, but there are times where silence is golden. I just sit, let the wind carry my ship forward, and stare out at the beautiful skies and rolling waves. This game is a visual feast, and being able to enjoy that on my own schedule is nice.

Sea of Thieves - a ship sinks next to the dock, as the player examines a cursed document
You may see your ship sinking a few times. A lot of times.
Rare/Microsoft Studios

None of this means you should limit yourself to playing alone exclusively. In fact, solo experience makes you the perfect tour guide when your friends start playing. You can be the wise old hand who tells them the difference between carrying an item and stowing cargo. You will get the honor of teaching them how to change their weapon loadout, how to pull out a map and how to keep a cool head during a storm.

Sea of Thieves has no tutorial and an incredibly rough start, but you can be the mine canary who encounters the early problems and saves your friends a ton of headaches.

Besides, it’s possible to make new friends in the game. As I pulled into an outpost at the end of a long voyage, I dropped anchor, grabbed a crate with a pig in it and started to head toward the Merchant Alliance vendor.

“Nice pig,” another player said. I thanked him, and thought that would be the end of our interaction ... until I realized I had dropped anchor too late, and my ship was sinking. As I stared out at what remained of my boat — mostly just a mast — my pig-appreciating colleague strolled up to me.

“Looks like your ship sunk,” he said.

“Yep,” I replied, wondering if this was a sign it was time to log off.

“Want to go fuck some dudes up?” he asked.

We did, and it was a blast, even if it wasn’t the most productive way to grind experience or earn gold. It was the kind of rare online interaction that I haven’t enjoyed since leveling up in World of Warcraft: the opportunity to join forces with a benevolent stranger during the course of my solo play.

It can be tough to get four people online at the same time. If you’ve been eyeing Sea of Thieves and yearning to scratch that sailing itch, go ahead and jump on a sloop. Get your feet wet. After all, isn’t bucking the trend and doing what your heart yearns for, even if it’s ill-advised, the most pirate thing possible?